Artist Feature: Bryan Cera and Critical Machining

Bryan Cera is a former student of mine (he did both his BFA and MFA with me at UW-Milwaukee), and I couldn’t be prouder. Not that I can honestly take any responsibility for the person and artist Bryan has become – one who far surpassed his teacher long ago; but rather, I am proud to call him a friend and colleague, proud of the hard work he has done, and what he has achieved with it.

Cera was the featured artist at Maker Faire Milwaukee last weekend – the largest Maker Faire in the country – showing off his custom-designed 3D/ceramic printer, and some Daft Punk cosplay, among other things. The former’s main innovations are a vertical shaft worm gear box in order to seriously increase torque, so as to work with standard clay (rather than the over-watery liquid that often doesn’t hold form in most models), and real-time, manual  controls to similarly adjust speed and viscosity as needed. The latter (which gets heaps of Interweb hits), he happily told us, uses an Arduino Nano and addressable RGB LEDs.

But it is not Bryan’s technical innovation nor his open source attitude alone that make me proud. He was always this way, generous and smart, able to figure things out and willing to help others understand them. (See some of Cera’s best tutorial shares here.)

What continues to intrigue and impress me is Cera’s ability to smoothly move between cool pop culture fun, and important questions about how we perform and understand technology, ourselves, and the worlds they together make and change. For him, and for anyone who spends any time with him, art and craft, technology and culture, philosophy and fun, are never far apart – and the stakes in that distance – or the lack thereof – always have consequences.

When I met him, Bryan was making traditional art and going through school on the one hand, playing with technology and his sense of humor on the other. He didn’t see these two lives as connected until he was pushed to explore his fun and geeky side in his (home) work. What initially came out was various versions of Supercontroller – a full-body, interactive interface for Super Mario Brothers. Delightfully fun, we grab coins and jump over (or on top of) turtles to rack up points; this piece’s various iterations also begin to show how digital realms do not enhance our behaviors: they actually limit them in how we must face the screen and interact. Pung – the title a cross between the 80s game Pong and the word sung (like singing) – sees us control the up/down paddles of the classic table tennis arcade game with our voices. Here microphones stick out like robot arms from the screen, and gallery-goers sing and scream into their controllers in order to make it go. It’s a hilarious amplification (literally!) of the weird things we do to make our technologies function (watch the video!), between play, performance, and habit.

These two works embarked Cera on a journey around precisely the tensions between such things. One breakthrough open-source piece that got a lot of attention was Glove One: a fully functional phone you wear on your hand. Though a lot of folks really loved it – you dial on your fingers, do the classic “call me” gesture to speak and listen with your thumb and pinky, hang up by slamming your fist – there was a much funnier, and more critical, joke to the entire gesture. You see, there’s this great hand-phone you can use with natural movements and that looks super cool… and all you have to do is give up all other uses of your hand. You can’t do anything else. Pick things up, hold hands with your partner, wipe – none of it is a go. And Cera’s argument is that we often give up just so much when we adopt our new tech toys. Even when our phones are not there, for example, when we try to shut down and shut off, we feel the phantoms ringing in our pockets, pulling away our attention and our time…

ARAI: Arm For Artistic Inquiry (pronounced array) goes in another direction, but explores similar concepts. We constantly hear how robots are going to outperform us, steal our jobs, become more human. One core argument for this future is so that we humans can spend more time doing important things… What if, Cera asks, we made a robot more human, by having it do the things that humans would actually do in that free time? So… he made a robot that procrastinates. I kid you not. ARAI constantly opens the fridge, peers in, then closes it. It surfs Facebook for pictures of cats. It stares at magazines but does not read them. Ironically, says Cera, the more human the robot becomes, the more useless it is to us. Scary, funny, something to think with… He talks about it brilliantly in the TEDx talk above.

I’m super excited to see what’s next from Bryan Cera. Now an Assistant Professor of Craft and Emerging Media in the Media Arts Department at the Alberta College of Art and Design (that’s a mouthful of awesome right there), he seems to be playing out how more general materials think and act, and how they may change our media, alongside and within them. His beautiful Video Crystals, for example, shape moving images into moving sculptures, and he is in the process of imagining ceramic robots.

Good job, Bryan. Thank you for your work.

Wednesday Sept 27: Morehshin Allahyari at UWM

Morehshin Allahyari is an Iranian artist who moved to the US ten years ago, and produces work across Internet art, video and installation, sculpture, writing, and other forms, all of which explore, she says,  the political, social, and cultural contradictions we face every day.

Two of Allahyari’s recent and most well-known works are The 3D Additivist Cookbook (with Daniel Rourke), and Material Speculation: ISIS. The former is a book of 3d .obj and .stl files, critical and fictional texts, templates, recipes, (im)practical designs and methodologies from over 100 world-leading artists, activists and theorists.

And it is absolutely free.

Download The 3D Additivist Cookbook here, or torrent (yes, a completely legal bit torrent!) the archive here.

Material Speculation is a reconstruction of 12 selected (original) artifacts (statues from the Roman period city of Hatra and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh) that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Allahyari 3D modeled and 3D printed these forms, creating, in the artists words “a practical and political possibility for artifact archival, while also proposing 3D printing technology as a tool both for resistance and documentation. It intends to use 3D printing as a process for repairing history and memory.” She includes a flash drive and a memory card inside the body of each 3D printed object, making each a kind of time capsule with images, maps, pdf files, and videos gathered on the artifacts and sites that were destroyed.

She is also a friend: generous and fun, smart and friendly, I highly recommend you try to make it to her talk this week, September 27, 2017 here in Milwaukee.

Artists Now! lectures take place every Wednesday at 7:30 pm in the Arts Center Lecture Hall on the UWM campus. They are always free and open to the public.

Briefiew of General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm

I define an ecological approach as one that takes account of agents, processes, thoughts, and relations. Humans and non-humans, matter and concepts, things and not-yet things, politics, economics, and industry, for example, are all actively shaped in, and as, their interrelation. And there is, according to Erich Hörl in his great collection edited along with James Burton, General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm (2017), “hardly any area that cannot be considered the object of an ecology and thus open to ecological reformulation.” These range in the thousands, he asserts, including “ecologies of sensation, perception, cognition, desire, attention, power, values, information, participation, media, the mind, relations, practices, behavior, belonging, the social, [and] the political” to name a fraction of those already called into action (1).

The book brings together some of the most important thinkers of our time, across media and philosophy, feminism and communication, geology and literature, to have us reevaluate, in the words of Brian Massumi in his chapter on “Virtual ecology and the question of value,” our “orientational qualities of existence.” What do we value, and why? Can we shift our appetites and propensities, our stylistic approaches, so as to aim, together, with our environments, towards better futures?

Like most collections, this book is best digested slowly, rather than read all at once. I started with the introduction, jumped to Massumi’s chapter (among the authors, I am most familiar with his work), then back around to Stiegler, Parikka, Fuller and Goriunova, and more, and I’m still middling through several others. I’ll admit it is also surprising, and reassuring, to see so many media theorists and digital culture scholars asking us to think-with our everyday materials, what they do and are, and might become – and what we should do as part of our engagements, and life.

Simply, I love the framing of this book as a whole. It gives these wonderful thinkers the opportunity take different and new directions with their research, to push the boundaries of their own specificities, in order to show us how to approach ecology more generally. And, it’s under $30 (yes, I paid for mine; this is not a freeview). Recommended.

Sean Slemon and Alfred Whitehead: on self-enjoyment and concern

Disclosure: South African-born and New York-based artist Sean Slemon is a long-time friend. That relationship grew precisely out of a mutual respect for each other’s work, and interesting conversation about cultural difference, politics, and life. When we met, he was a South African about to move to New York with his Jewish-American wife, while I was a New York Jew living in South Africa. And, bluntly: I think he and his work are brilliant.

As part of our work-friendship, I’ve had the pleasure of writing on, and around, Sean’s work for something like 15 years. I’ve penned a press release, a review, an academic essay, and two catalog essays, alongside his practice, which has continuously gained depth. There’s something to be said for this. While artists often think they need several voices across catalogs (etc) reflecting on their work (and I’ve certainly gained a great deal from the writings and thoughts of many others telling me what my work is doing, for them), there is also much to be gained from a lengthy engagement, from someone who has taken that journey with you.

Artists should have long-term conversations with writers, or theorists, or other artists, invested in their work. (More on this idea in a post in the next month or two, when I plan to preview a forthcoming book by philosopher Brian Massumi.)

I’m currently writing the catalog essay for Sean’s solo exhibition, Confluence Tree, which opens in Minnesota next month. And I’m also finishing up a section on his work, Goods for Me (also a bit on Public Property, above), for my forthcoming book. Here I’d like to briefly shine a light on his Paduak (Pterocarpus Soyaxi), and a few of the ideas I borrow from mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to think-with Sean in those other texts.

Paduak (Pterocarpus Soyaxi), 2015 African Padauk Hardwood 22 x 38-1/2 x 46-1/2 inches (55.9 x 95.3 x 115.6 cm.)
Paduak (Pterocarpus Soyaxi), 2015 African Padauk Hardwood 22 x 38-1/2 x 46-1/2 inches (55.9 x 95.3 x 115.6 cm.)

A paduak is a West African species of tree. Nowadays farmed, they grow about 160 feet tall, create bright red lumber, and get darker with age. Here Slemon extruded a two-dimensional drawing of a paduak into a sculpture, and then he simply made a paduak tree, at paduak scale, out of paduak wood. It’s fascinating to hear him talk about this memorial and celebration, this ludic attempt to turn a tree back into what it once was. Paduak is an especially hard wood, like nothing Slemon has ever worked with; he went through many saw blades for the show, had to cut it as if he were working with steel. It was a hard-won piece of art, where, in the end, the material itself speaks as loudly as Slemon’s intent with it, giving both him and “tree” some agency in that final piece.

Despite that Paduak will never again be a paduak, it re-members. That is, it embodies again. It remembers what it was, just as it is substantiated into what Slemon made it. Substantiated: given meaning like a substantiated argument, but also made into a material, and substantial, form. In this case, the two meanings are one and the same.

As viewers we have an immediately felt experience – what Alfred North Whitehead calls “self-enjoyment” (Modes of Thought 1968: 150) – which also has us “concern” ourselves with the before and after, with the outside that both made for this occasion of experience, and where, with our help, it might be heading afterwards (1968: 167). Film Scholar Steven Shaviro explains that Whitehead’s self-enjoyment “happens pre-reflexively in the moment itself. I enjoy my life as I am living it; my enjoyment of the very experience of living is precisely what it means to be alive” (in Beyond Metaphysics? 2010: 249). Self-enjoyment and life are processual – that is, ongoing rather than static – but are autonomous and individual events, each one “my” self-contained experience.

And while self-enjoyment is part of every isolated occurrence or experience, concern is for and with the things we experience – our outsides, and their befores and afters. Concern is “an involuntary experience of being affected by others. It opens me, in spite of myself, to the outside.” Concern thus “compromises my autonomy, leading me towards something beyond myself.” Concern is, Whitehead asserts, concern “with the universe” (1968: 167). It implies, Shaviro explains further, “a weight upon the spirit. When something concerns me, I cannot ignore it or walk away from it. It presses upon my being and compels me to respond” (2010: 249). Concern is always for and with things external to myself, with the many pasts in and of the world around me (which lead to this present moment of transition), and with the potential futures I may help to make.

Slemon draws and draws out a concern for matter and things, life and time.

While many painters, printmakers, and illustrators “think with ink,” sketch to produce new ideas, Slemon does so with his own matters of concern, as a sculptor. Wood with wood, each informing the other. In-form: in the process of being formed.

Goods for Me by Sean Slemon. 12 x 8 x 2 feet. 2011.
Goods for Me by Sean Slemon. 12 x 8 x 2 feet. 2011.

The artist recently told me, recalling his growing up in South Africa, “I come from a place where social equality and its very imbalance are always in the spotlight.” And he does not see this concern as distinct from that of the Paduak. When Sean Slemon is concerned with trees, he is also concerned with himself, with past and future, with resources, agency, and equality, with what they were, could have been, and still might be; he is concerned with how worlds and lives, things and selves, together practice their unfolding. Our experience of his art is an intensification, he says, of “ideas, people, parts of the country, attitudes, and points of view.”

Overall, in a long and beautiful body of work, Slemon re-places and re-presents different concepts of time and relation, people and peoples, matter and what matters. How does the Earth tell time? That tree show care? This nation flourish? We, as people, move forward? We are like children trying to sense and make sense of things we can never fully understand.

And yet, we can wonder at, and concern ourselves with, consequence and potential, style and aesthetics, compassion and beauty, so as to aim towards better futures.

Shaviro, Steven. 2010. “Self-Enjoyment and Concern: On Whitehead and Levinas.” In Beyond Metaphysics?: Explorations in Alfred North Whitehead’s Late Thought, edited by Roland Faber, Clinton Combs, and Brian G. Henning, 249-257. New York: Rodopi.
Whitehead, Alfred North. 1968. Modes of Thought. New York: Free Press.

implicit art… restart (on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy)

With the pending release of my new book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics) in June or July of next year, and all the goings-on of the last couple of years in my life / the world, I’ve decided it might be time to reboot the blog I began back in Johannesburg circa 2002, and which teetered off and eventually died after two continental moves. Whereas that site began with my writings on art and politics, moved into regional discussions of aesthetics and culture and back again, here…. um, well… yeh, it will similarly be on whatever I feel like posting about, that I think is interesting.

For now, the new tagline is “art and ecology, fiction and geek stuff, culture and philosophy, parenting and life, etc”.

Forthcoming: a bit on my new book, some interesting tidbits from students in the classes I am teaching this semester (two Digital Studio courses, and one in Mechanical Engineering, plus some extra-curriculars), and thoughts on some great new art and books I’ve seen and read this Summer. You can expect to hear from me about once per week from now.

For now, a briefiew (yeh, I just made that up, a “brief review” portmanteau.  Tho I’m sure someone else has used it before, and it may not have gone down well. I decided against googling it, and ruining it for myself….) on Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.

There are some lovely, and funny, and sad moments in this book, about a Google engineer’s quest for contentment, where he found and lost and found happiness before and after the death of his son. Gawdat hopes to share, simply, how to live with ourselves, and others, in the moment. He has an actual equation and formula, with numbers and lists and drawings (I’m actually listening to the audiobook, so I just imagine them, tho it comes with a PDF; his voice is very soothing). Honestly, Gawdat’s outlook mostly feels like a contemporary (and geeky) take on Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now (which my mom likes way more than I do).

In the end, overall, it’s worth your time (even if, like me, there are few self-help books you are into – non-fiction is, of course, much broader than this!). The author is likable, his stories moving, his personality generous and relatable. And I’d like to share my favorite bit, which more or less goes as follows: the voice in your head is not you.

That person, who you think is you, who criticizes the way you eat, or move, or work out? The one who replays conversations in your head (or in my case, out loud), or wonders why that person at work is being that way towards you? That voice, which questions you, or the world, or the ones you care about? Overall, your inner monologue… That person is not you. That’s a construct of a person, the one who got praise or punishment from parents and teachers, and followed suit; he or she is the one who performs for others. That is not the real you. YOU are the one observing that criticizer. And you do not have to listen to the voice.

I’ve named the voice in my head Ferdinand. He is a bit of a dick, and I like to roll my eyes at, and make fun of, him. It has seriously changed things around here. So… thanks for that, Mo Gawdat’s Solve for Happy.